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Tue July 10, 2012
Around the Nation

Homeless Rural Vets Find A Place To Call Home

Originally published on Tue July 10, 2012 7:34 pm

This month, more than a dozen homeless veterans will finally have a place to call their own, thanks to the American Legion.

The organization's post in a small Connecticut town has been working for a decade on a unique project to create not transitional but permanent supportive housing in their rural community.

For 55-year-old Army veteran Jeff MacDonald, the new facility in Jewett City, Conn., was like "winning the lottery."

"Never did I have a house or my own place or nothing," MacDonald says while walking through his new apartment. "That's why I'm always outside."

MacDonald is one of 15 homeless veterans who will live in the renovated American Legion Post. When he got the news, MacDonald says he cried. He has spent the past 22 years drifting from place to place, and battling alcoholism along the way. Now, he's awestruck by the idea that he'll have his own home.

Jewett City is in southeastern Connecticut, a rural town that lost its major textile industry when the mills closed after World War II. It's a quiet community with a Main Street that's quintessential New England. Everything you need is a short walk away.

A popular destination is Arremony's Bakery, just a few feet away from the American Legion Post. It was there that Navy veteran William Czmyr first hatched his idea to help homeless veterans by creating apartments for them.

"There are veterans out there that are having it kind of rough; trying to get things back together," Czmyr says. "They come out of the military, and somewhere along the line they made the wrong turn."

The Legion post in Jewett City had an abundance of space, so Czmyr organized a committee 10 years ago to work on raising money to renovate the building. From the very beginning, the idea was to provide permanent supportive housing where veterans could stay as long as it took for them to become independent.

The location piqued the interest of the Department of Veterans Affairs immediately.

"Homelessness is a problem in rural areas in southeast Connecticut as in many rural areas in America," says Laurie Harkness, director of the VA's Errera Center in Connecticut.

The VA is in the third year of an initiative to end homelessness, but the biggest challenge remains in rural communities where the VA has had a hard time connecting with veterans. For example, it could take a veteran in Jewett City more than an hour to get to one of Connecticut's two VA hospitals.

Post Cmdr. Mark Czmyr, William Czmyr's son, says this is why the Legion wanted to provide housing to veterans living in the eastern part of the state.

"If they were homeless and looking for a place to live, they may have to go to New Haven or Hartford [and] be displaced from an area that they know," Mark Czmyr says.

Federal VA housing vouchers known as HUD-VASH will pay the rent for each veteran. Caseworkers and medical staff from the VA will also come to the men and women living in the building.

In late June, the town of Jewett City turned out to officially open the $6 million renovated apartment building and American Legion Post.

Harkness says Jewett City could be a model for other communities. She says ideas like this come up all the time, but this rural town has something not found in very many places.

"This is the first project that I've ever been involved in where there was no 'not in my backyard,' " Harkness says. "Everybody supported it."

The uniqueness of this project garnered $200,000 in federal government funds. The American Legion also received sizable grants from the state of Connecticut, as well as private donations.

Copyright 2013 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnpr.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

This month, more than a dozen homeless veterans in Connecticut will finally have a place to call their own, thanks to the American Legion. They'll stay at the legion's post in the small town of Jewett City. Lucy Nalpathanchil from member station WNPR reports.

JEFF MACDONALD: This is like winning the lottery. It's better than that, really is.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL, BYLINE: Fifty-five-year-old Army veteran Jeff MacDonald is walking through a brand-new apartment in Jewett City, Connecticut.

MACDONALD: Never did I own a house or have my own place or nothing. That's why I'm always outside.

NALPATHANCHIL: He's one of 15 homeless veterans who will live in the renovated American Legion post. When he got the news, MacDonald says he cried. He spent the last 22 years drifting from place to place and battling alcoholism along the way. Now, he's awestruck by the idea he'll have his own home.

MACDONALD: Everything from - you name it. I just bring in my clothes. A walk in closet? Come on, I never had one, even got the hangers for me too. This is great.

NALPATHANCHIL: Jewett City is in southeastern Connecticut, a rural town that lost its major textile industry when the mills closed after World War II. It's a quiet community with a Main Street that's quintessential New England. Everything you need is a short walk away. A popular destination is Arremony's Bakery, just a few feet away from the American Legion Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: 6.50 please.

NALPATHANCHIL: This is where Navy veteran William Czmyr first hatched his idea to help homeless veterans by creating apartments for them.

WILLIAM CZMYR: There are veterans out there that are having it kind of rough, trying to get things back together. They come out of the military, and somewhere along the line, they made the wrong turn.

NALPATHANCHIL: The Legion Post in Jewett City had an abundance of space, so Czmyr organized a committee 10 years ago to work on raising money to renovate the building. From the very beginning, the idea was to provide permanent supportive housing where veterans could stay as long as it took for them to become independent. The location piqued the interest of the VA immediately. Dr. Laurie Harkness is director of the VA's Errera Center in Connecticut.

DR. LAURIE HARKNESS: Homelessness is a problem in rural areas in southeast Connecticut as in many rural areas in America.

NALPATHANCHIL: The VA is in the third year of an initiative to end homelessness, but the biggest challenge remains in rural communities where the VA has had a hard time connecting with veterans. For example, it could take a veteran in Jewett City over an hour to get to one of Connecticut's two VA hospitals. Post Commander Mark Czmyr, William's son, says this is why the Legion wanted to provide housing to veterans living in the eastern part of the state.

MARK CZMYR: If they were homeless and looking for a place to live, they may have to go to New Haven, Hartford, be displaced from the area that they know.

NALPATHANCHIL: Federal VA housing vouchers known as HUD-VASH will pay the rent for each veteran, and caseworkers and medical staff from the VA will come to the men and women living in the building.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

NALPATHANCHIL: In late June, the town of Jewett City turned out to officially open the $6 million renovated apartment building and American Legion Post. Laurie Harkness, of VA Connecticut, says Jewett City could be a model for other communities. She says ideas like this come up all the time, but this rural town has something not found in very many places.

HARKNESS: This is the first project that I've ever been involved in where there was no not in my backyard. Everybody supported it.

NALPATHANCHIL: The uniqueness of this project garnered $200,000 in federal government funds. The American Legion also received sizable grants from the state of Connecticut as well as private donations. For NPR News, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil in Hartford.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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